Spices and Street Art: Exploring Penang

I ‘ve been slacking loads on the blog over the last few weeks, mostly due to awful internet on the islands (although also due to extreme laziness), so expect a few on our Malaysian adventures to appear over the next few days… making up for lost time!

We arrived in Malaysia having done zero research on what to expect – it wasn’t one of our bucket list countries for our round the world trip, but more of a convenient stop along the way.

After being blown away with Singapore, arriving in Kuala Lumpur was a bit deflating… yes it’s got some pretty sky scrapers, but that’s about it. We are so sick of cities after the past month of relentless city to city travel, which looked like this: Taipei – Nagasaki – Hiroshima – Osaka – Kyoto – Tokyo – Singapore – Kuala Lumpur. After all those beasts, we knew it was time to get back to jungles, beaches and mountains.

To that end, we hightailed it out of KL after only the most cursory look around before boarding a plane for Penang. Penang is an island to the north east of the Malaysian peninsula, known for it’s brilliant food and George Town’s UNESCO world heritage city centre.

Tropical Spice Garden

We only planned on staying two days in Penang, so only had time to do a few things. The best by far was the Tropical Spice Garden – the only spice garden in Asia. It’s like a botanical garden, but the audio guide gives you an insight into the history of the spice trade and what the different tropical plants are used for in medicine and tradition.

Tropical Spice Garden, Penang Island

The garden is set up in such a beautiful way that even if plodding round botanical gardens isn’t your thing, you’d still love the jungle of the spice garden. With it’s little stepping stones over streams, windy little paths through massive palm trees and terraces packed full of herbs and spices, this is a place we loved. Especially after the morning rain, which made the whole place steam in the heat.

No boring rhododendrons here – instead they have a cool poison garden where we avoided touching anything at all as we read the little info plaques on all the weird and wonderful ways that particular plant could kill you. They had some questionable info on there about the health benefits too, and if we believed all we read then we’d have found cures for cancer, blindness and god knows what else.  

Come in… but don’t touch!

The Spice Garden has a giant swing which is obviously great for the all important insta-shot, but also just amazing to sit on together and admire the view. I felt like a vague stress had been lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t even realise I was carrying – this was why we came traveling… to be in the beautiful outdoors, not sweating our way through another city. Not that jungle is any less sweaty, but at least it’s much prettier.

Swinging out over the garden paths

We spent a good few hours mooching around the jungle paths with our audio guides before heading to it’s Tree Monkey Restaurant for our first taste of Penang’s famous food. The Tree Monkey is definitely a restaurant with a view – the wooden tree house style balcony looks out to sea on one side, and the jungle on the other. Not to mention the food was bloody amazing.

They also offer cooking classes and I actually really regret that we didn’t fork out the extra cash and spend the morning cooking with the spices from the gardens and learning how to make some of the delicious food we ate. Oh well, at least we got to eat it. Nomnomnom.

Amazing food at Tree Monkey, Penang

George Town Street Art

The next day we decided we’d spend some time in Georgetown. Yep… another city, but nothing like any we’d visited so far. The old town in the city centre is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site due to it’s amazing mix of indigenous and colonial architecture.

The island of Penang was handed over to the English by the Sultan of Kedah in the 1700s, and Georgetown was born – named after King George III. Hence the beautiful English colonial buildings still preserved today. The rest of the city is a mash up of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian influence, giving the city a really nice vibe, with different quarters to explore.

Georgetown, Malaysia

With it’s colourful and crumbly-but-beautiful buildings it’s a really nice place to hang out – we sat outside a bar down Love Lane one night and I felt like we had one foot back in old colonial times gone by while at the same time having the other foot in the present; the buildings so grand and colourful, so well preserved, but yet bare plaster showing, paint fading and the shells now inhabited by neon-lit bars and hostels. Not your typical city centre.

The best way we found to see the city was to grab a locations map from the tourist info centre and go on a street art scavenger hunt. It gave us a sense of purpose instead of just wandering around aimlessly, showing us little side streets and alleys that we wouldn’t have set foot in otherwise, and obviously meant that we got to see the best of Georgetown’s amazing street art.

Exploring Georgetown, Malaysia

The street art was actually planned by the city council – in 2012 they commissioned a Lithuanian artist to create awareness of Georgetown’s rich history and breathe some new life into the place. The best thing about the artwork is that it is incorporated into it’s surroundings so well – the artist used the crumbling building facades as a part of his work, making it a stunning part of area around it. I’ve added lots of the artwork to our insta, so have a gander at that if you want to see it all, but a few are below. My fave is the kid with his pet dinosaur.

Georgetown street art
Georgetown street art
Georgetown street art

Penang – worth a visit?

Um yes, go there. In fact, just fly to Georgetown and skip KL. Penang island has so much to offer – loads that we didn’t even see to be honest. We missed out the beaches as we knew we’d planned on some beachy days in the near future, but I hear they are amazing. Penang isn’t called the Pearl of the Orient for nothing. You could spend a week exploring the island easily, but we made ours a short trip as we didn’t fancy staying in the city too long, so soon headed off to another wonderful island – Langkawi. But more about that later.

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